By Peter Baker and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A01
President Bush said yesterday that he will send more U.S. forces and equipment to Baghdad as part of a fresh strategy to put down rising sectarian violence, abandoning a six-week-old operation that failed to pacify the strife-torn Iraqi capital and opening what aides called an unexpected new phase of the war.
Playing host to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House for the first time, Bush sounded unusually dour and acknowledged that the situation in Iraq in many ways has worsened lately. But he vowed to adjust tactics to deal with evolving threats and to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as necessary to fortify Maliki's government until it can defend itself.
The additional U.S. forces for Baghdad, which could total in the thousands, would come from elsewhere in Iraq, but the deteriorating security situation seemed to all but doom the prospect for significant troop withdrawals before the November congressional elections. The Pentagon had drawn up scenarios that envisioned pulling out as many as 30,000 troops this year, but military officials said yesterday that those now appear implausible and that U.S. forces will probably remain at the current level of 127,000 for several months at least.
"Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops," Bush said in a news conference with Maliki.
"Conditions change inside a country," he added. "And the question is: Are we going to be facile enough to change with [them]? Will we be nimble enough? Will we be able to deal with the circumstances on the ground? And the answer is, yes, we will."
Maliki, who took office two months ago, likewise expressed resolve in the face of bombings and death squads that have inflicted increasing casualties on civilians. But he ended the news conference with a comment suggesting how close to the edge he considers his country. "God willing," he said, "there will be no civil war in Iraq."
The two leaders tried to present a united front and made no public mention of disagreements about amnesty for Iraqi insurgents or immunity for U.S. troops. They did have what the president called "a frank exchange" over the conflict in Lebanon, with Maliki calling for "an immediate cease-fire" and Bush supporting only "a sustainable cease-fire" that addresses the region's broader issues first.
Maliki did not directly repeat his recent criticism of Israel's military operation, nor did he respond to a question about his position on Hezbollah. His previous statements condemning Israel for the conflict have stoked anger on Capitol Hill, where House and Senate Democrats called on him to clarify his stance before being allowed to address a joint meeting of Congress today.
For that and other reasons, Maliki's inaugural visit to the White House had none of the triumphal mood of Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad to meet the new prime minister June 13. The heady spirit of that day, coming just after the killing of al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and coinciding with a new Baghdad security plan called Operation Forward Together, seemed a distant memory as Bush and Maliki stood in the East Room yesterday with grim expressions and subdued tones in their voices.
"No question, it's tough in Baghdad," Bush said, "and no question, it's tough in other parts of Iraq. But there are also places where progress is being made."
As the two leaders met, violence continued in Iraq. A U.S. service member from the 43rd Military Police Brigade was killed while on "combat operations" north of Baghdad, according to a U.S. military statement that did not identify the slain American. Violence also flared in northern Iraq, with car bombings, assassinations and an attack on a group of workers leaving an Iraqi military base.
The Bush administration is trying to respond to the shifting nature of the war. Where once U.S. forces were focused primarily on anti-U.S. foreign fighters and Sunni insurgents, today they confront a more complicated situation in which de facto militias are targeting Iraqis, in some cases aided by Iraqi police forces commanded by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.
"It's a new challenge," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said after yesterday's Bush-Maliki meetings. "This isn't about insurgency. This isn't about terror. This is about sectarian violence."
Security analysts said that the administration has not yet figured out a way to deal with the militias and will not get anywhere until it does. "It's clear the Interior Ministry is out of control," said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former adviser to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq. "Death squads are never acceptable."
Rubin said that when he traveled around Iraq recently, his Iraqi companions were more worried about police checkpoints than anything else. When he asked whether he should show his old Defense Department identification card at a checkpoint, Rubin said, his Iraqi colleagues called it "the execute-me-please-faster card."
Bush and his aides were vague about the new Baghdad security strategy, but the president said it would involve embedding more U.S. military police with Iraqi police units. The combined forces, he said, would secure individual neighborhoods "and gradually expand the security presence as Iraqi citizens help them root out those who instigate violence."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld later told reporters he would not discuss how many troops will move to Baghdad. "There are more Iraqi troops that will be going to Baghdad than U.S., but both will be going in in fairly good numbers, more than hundreds," he said. Rumsfeld said that there is "a good deal of violence" in Baghdad and two or three other provinces but that more than a dozen provinces are doing well.
Military officials said the U.S. contingent brought into Baghdad could be as large as a brigade, which would mean 2,000 to 5,000 more troops joining the 30,000 now deployed in the capital area. A reserve force held in Kuwait has already moved largely into Iraq, so officials said additional U.S. forces for Baghdad could come from areas recently passed to Iraqi control, such as Muthanna province in the south or Mosul in the north.
A Pentagon official said four Army military police companies, totaling about 400 soldiers, have been ordered to Baghdad to be embedded with Iraqi police units expected to sweep through the city in coming days. The Pentagon also may prepare a Marine or Army brigade combat team outside Iraq for quick deployment if needed in coming weeks, in part because the reserve force, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was sent from Jordan to Lebanon last week to help remove U.S. citizens.
Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that pulling U.S. troops from other areas of Iraq could be a gamble but that commanders had no choice, lest they risk losing the capital. "The previous security mission, with Iraqi troops and a limited U.S. force, failed completely," he said, adding that "if they didn't do something and do it quickly, we'd probably see the country collapse into civil war."
In Iraq yesterday, gunmen descended on a group of laborers outside an Iraqi base 50 miles west of Mosul, killing four workers and wounding eight others. A car bomb exploded near a U.S. military patrol in Mosul, missing the patrol but wounding nine people, including two traffic policemen. Also in Mosul, gunmen killed an Iraqi police lieutenant colonel and a customs official.
Staff writer Joshua Partlow in Baghdad and special correspondent Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.